Rosemary Crompton’s Journey to Sociology

Rosemary Crompton (1942-2011) was a famous British sociologist of work who researched white-collar work, women’s employment, organisational careers and class, cross-national variations in gender relations and related policies and their impacts on employment and family life.  Yet, she was – as I found out today – also, like may of us, an accidental sociologist. Here is how she described her own journey to sociology (Source: BSA, www.britsoc.co.uk):

“It would be nice to be able to tell a heroic tale about my ‘journey to sociology’ but unfortunately this isn’t possible. At my Hampshire grammar school, we had to choose between continuing with physics and chemistry, or starting Latin, at the age of thirteen. I chose physics and chemistry, not realising that I would need Latin ‘O’ level in order to study English (my best subject) at university. So I went up to London University in 1960 to do a degree in biology. I swiftly realised that I had made a terrible mistake, but wasn’t qualified to switch to English. In desperation I persuaded the sociology department to take me on, as they didn’t require Latin. After an undistinguished undergraduate career, I moved to Cambridge, getting a short-term job as a junior researcher on the Affluent Worker project. In the pre-computer era, my main task was to prepare tables, using punched cards and a Hollerith machine (located in the basement of the Marshall library). I became an expert in getting the tattiest cards through the machine, and doing six-way cross-tabulations that were then percentaged (by me) using a fearsome (and noisy) adding machine.

You could say that my journey to sociology began in the basement of the Marshall library. I was fascinated by the data, and the relationships between the variables that emerged from my cross-tabs. Goldthorpe and Lockwood, who directed the Affluent Worker project, were highly critical of both Parsonian functionalism, and ideas about ‘industrial convergence’ that were the dominant orthodoxies of the sixties – although my undergraduate years hadn’t included Parsons as my theory lecturer at university had a thing about Herbert Spencer. A further research job at Cambridge drew me into the ‘sociology of work’, and indeed, I have been talking to people about their work ever since. After a move to East Anglia and another research job I got a junior lectureship. At the end of the sixties, sociology became immensely popular and for a number of years I did nothing but teach. I did read, though, and the books that influenced me most were C Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination and R K Merton on Social Theory and Social Structure. From there it seemed but a short step to Marx. In the radical atmosphere of the politics of the time (and books such as Baran and Sweezey’s Monopoly Capital), Capital volume 1 seemed to me to reveal the underlying processes that were shaping employment in the 1960s, leading to my first book on class (Economy and Class Stucture, with Jon Gubbay). This impression was more than confirmed by Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital.

 

When the teaching receded a bit, I turned again to empirical research and (with Gareth Jones) carried out an ESRC funded study of clerical workers (White-Collar Proletariat). Doing the research in the 1970s uncovered a lot of furious women who realised they were never going to make it up the organisational hierarchy. This led to research on women’s employment in the 1980s (Gendered Jobs and Social Change, with Kay Sanderson). I had tried to keep up with debates on social class, and in the 1990s it seemed there was a lot of confusion about, so I wrote Class and Stratification. I also began doing comparative cross-national research (Restructuring Gender Relations and Employment), which has become something of a passion, as it facilitates the causal unravelling of topics that have long been of interest to me. Why do women in some societies do so much better in employment than in others, for example? My current research has a focus on how employment and family life are being reconfigured in contemporary societies, and how class processes are inter-twined with this reconfiguration.

 

In conclusion, although my beginnings in sociology were accidental, I don’t consider that my journey is over yet. I have always felt that sociology is like detective work, a combination of different kinds of reasonings, and different methods, in order to arrive at a satisfactory explanation of a particular phenomenon – at least for the time being. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) there will always be things that need explaining, and that is what sociologists do.”


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